GULLANE, SCOTLAND | Gavin Hastings, captain of the 1993 British Lions in New Zealand and a member at Muirfield, had been put in charge of a “Quiet Please” board on the second day of the Amateur championship. The board was a bit of a waste of time in that the place could not have been more eerily silent. In truth, the atmosphere over the qualifying days had more in common with university finals. Every player was intent on trying to win the championship and with it a place in the Open and next year’s Masters – the optimum way to begin the professional career.
Those competitors who were not on the course were on the practice range, with Ken Brown of Ryder Cup and TV commentary fame standing by for a few minutes before saying what was on his mind. “These lads aren’t amateurs – they’re professionals already,” he said. As he spoke, news was coming in of a French lad by name of Olivier Rozner who had just whipped round North Berwick, the second qualifying course, in 63.
Gone are the days when butchers, bakers and candlestick makers, along with the odd middle-aged lawyer and doctor, would give the Amateur a feel all its own. In 1998, when Sergio Garcia won the Amateur at Muirfield, the field included a handful of older players including the then 46-year-old John Harris, winner of the 1991 U.S. Amateur. This year, Phil Mickelson’s 32-year-old brother, Tim, coach at San Diego University, was one of the fathers of the field. A high percentage of the rest were into golf full-time, while those who were still at college seemed more interested in polishing their play than their prose.
“They’re all getting better younger,” said Peter Dawson, the CEO of the R&A. “In terms of age, the field is more compressed than it ever was.”
The R&A withdrew their old Youths’ championship – 21 and under – in the 1990s because there was no longer a gap between boys’ golf and the men’s game. “Today,” said Dawson, “there’s not too much difference between boys’ golf and professional golf.” He cited Matteo Manassero, who was 16 when he won last year’s Amateur and finished 13th in the Open.
The Tiger effect is one very good explanation for this advancing army of dedicated youngsters. “Tiger has had an incredible influence on the next generation,” said Dawson. “They all want to be stars and some of them will be.”
Dawson also pointed to the high standard of coaching. Brown, meanwhile, suggested that lighter, modern equipment had made a marked difference, not least in terms of helping children to get off the mark at an earlier age. “I very much doubt,” he argued, “that Michelle Wie would have been able to do as she did at 14 in terms of playing alongside the men if she had been wielding a wooden driver.”
The players have their own view. The best know that there are no short cuts to the top. Even if they are hugely pampered at the upper levels of the amateur golf – “in danger of being too pampered,” warns Dawson – they still have to put in the hours on the range.
Jonathan Randolph, sixth on the world amateur rankings, said that his recent improvement is down to the way he keeps putting himself into “high pressure situations.” There are times when he fails miserably – at Muirfield he had two 74s to miss out on the match-play – but he long ago taught himself to see every disappointment as part of the learning curve.
Impressed though Dawson was at the high standard of play, he was still inclined to mourn the passing of such dedicated amateurs as Nigel Edwards and Gary Wolstenholme, the latter of whom defeated Woods in the 1995 Walker Cup at Royal Porthcawl. (Only Woods bothers with a cheerful reminder that he beat Wolstenholme in their return match on the second day.)
Where, as Dawson said, such senior figures were able to serve as mentors to the rest, today’s international teams are made up almost wholly of rookies. Which is virtually as things were in the Curtis Cup in Boston. Sally Watson, the only player in the Great Britain and Ireland camp with a Curtis Cup already under her belt, did her best to act as the older statesman – and that though she was only 20.
“It’s a new world and we’re all adjusting,” said Dawson.
So where does he think the amateur game will be in ten years time? He half suspected that the players would be even younger, like so many swimmers and gymnasts. Yet he was quick to issue the reminder that he was only talking about amateurs.
Picking up a sheet of the latest Sony world rankings, the CEO pointed to how the first of the young bloods, Rory McIlroy, was tenth. McIlroy’s age-group were making headlines with a win here and a win there but they were not showing the consistency as those in the 30s and 40s. In other words, the older golfer is not yet a person of the past. When it comes to playing for pay, experience is still important.